Editor's note: The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, and at its heart is the desire for prosperity and success. But the American Dream is changing. The Aiken Standard looks at why that is in a four-part series continuing today.
Dan and Alexandra Billings come home to their very own house every evening, with its lush green lawn and the couple's two puppies excitedly greeting them.
These two young professionals just bought their house in Aiken about three months ago, and have been working diligently on repairs and little personal touches to make it a place of their own. The Billingses are living their idea of the American Dream after years of hard work and financial responsibility.
But the shaky economy has made buying a home difficult and a little scary for many people, as there's still concern about jobs and the future in general.
Is owning a home still a part of the American Dream? The Billingses think so, and many others seem to agree despite the challenges many face in obtaining homeownership.
The U.S. Census Bureau shows that between 2007 and 2011, out of approximately 160,000 Aiken County residents, about 72 percent of them, owned a home. Out of the 4.6 million South Carolina residents, 69.8 percent owned homes during that same time period, compared to 65.1 percent nationwide in 2010.
At about the same time, home foreclosure rates were also increasing across the country.
The housing market is slowly getting back on track. According the Aiken Board of Realtors, 147 closed sales occurred in the county during July in comparison to 118 last year during the same month.
But buying a house comes with its own set of challenges.
Local financial adviser Greg Roberts remembers putting down just 5 percent on his home in 1974. Now, many lenders ask for a down payment of 20 percent; although there are several loan options that allow for a smaller or no down payment at all.
Roberts said that, years ago, lenders were a bit more lenient, but, when the real estate slump struck the nation, their requirements tightened. He said owning a home is a dying part of the American Dream for many in the lower or middle classes because they simply can't afford the down payments.
“Homeownership has lost a bit of its luster,” Roberts said.
He added that living in such a mobile society, as people follow the jobs from city to city and state to state, could also be a contributing factor to some nixing homeownership from their life goals.
According to Pew Research, an organization that studies social and demographic trends, a record 21.6 million young adults from the ages of 18 to 31, known as the Millennial generation, were living with their parents in 2012.
Declining employment, rising college enrollment and a decrease in marriages were listed as contributing factors by Pew Research.
Shelby Wise, 22, moved back in with her father, who resides in the Graniteville area, after graduating college in May.
After years of working as a restaurant server while attending college, she scored an internship at Ocozzio Marketing in Augusta during her senior year that materialized into a full-time job when she graduated.
Wise said she struggled to find a roommate, and, rather than living paycheck by paycheck, she's taking time to save some money to form a strong financial base before she leaves home.
Melanie Herbold, 22, also just graduated from USC Aiken in the spring. She soon started working as a copy editor at the Augusta Chronicle, and is currently living with her parents.
“I just can't afford to live on my own right now,” she said.
After living on campus, Herbold said it was a bit strange to move back in with her parents, but they welcomed her with open arms. Herbold said in the next year, she plans to move in with some friends.
To Herbold, the American Dream is finding a good job to support oneself, buying a house and starting a family.
And many people her age feel the same way, according to USCA Sociology Professor Dr. Christine Wernet.
Wernet asked 35 students to tell her what they think are the most important aspects of the American Dream. Material wealth topped the list, followed by love, family and having a satisfying job. At least 20 percent of the 35 students mentioned homeownership. Several students even mentioned the white picket fence so often depicted in the classic American Dream, Wernet's research showed.
“My research shows that while the reality of real life might be changing, and that values are changing, that the American Dream itself has not changed,” Wernet said. “The American Dream is still intact.”
No place like home
Dan and his wife Alexandra Billings, both 27, recently traded rent for mortgage payments. The couple lives in a three bedroom, two bathroom house in Aiken. They are paying $63 less a month now than they were while renting a two bedroom and one bathroom unit.
Alexandra is a mortgage loan originator for Regions, which helped the young couple be a bit more prepared as they started the process of purchasing a home. Alexandra said there are many affordable options, such as loans through the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Federal Housing Authority.
Dan, who works at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said there was some uncertainty, especially when he first started his job three years ago, and there was a round of layoffs. But he said they decided to “bite the bullet” and buy a home while interest rates were still pretty low.
Dan and Alexandra are not native to South Carolina but are in love with the area and even more so now that they've established roots in Aiken.
“I feel that Aiken is more home now because we have this house,” Alexandra said.
Does a home still fit into today's Dream?
Dr. Richard A. Heiens, professor of marketing at USCA, said owning a home is still part of the Dream and probably always will be. But he said a lot of it, to some extent, will depend on the perspective of each generation.
“Baby boomers grew up during an era of rising economic prosperity and envisioned their lives as being even more comfortable and financially stable than their parents' and grandparents' generations,” Heiens said. “For them, homeownership has always been, and will always be (part of the Dream), regardless of the recent state of the housing market, the most potent symbol of financial success and social status.”
But the question of whether or not homeownership will continue to be a symbol of success for young generations depends on future trends.
“As our society changes and lifestyles evolve, we may begin to accept new sets of values, and society may gravitate toward new symbols of status and social position,” Heiens said. “It will be hard to supplant homeownership in the American Dream, but financial realities and lack of confidence in the housing market could delay the pursuit of this crucial component of the American Dream and contribute to diminished rates of homeownership in the future.”
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard. She has been with the publication since May 2010. She is a graduate of Randolph Macon Woman's College and a native of Rustburg, Va.